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In effort to save our sons shines a Breakthrough

They lock the doors promptly at 3 p.m.  Then the after-school programs begin. The meeting room for the children is in an open cafeteria. Inside a ping-pong table supported by some old philosophy books provides afternoon activity.  A library cart in the corner is scattered with old novels and phonebooks.A quotation from Psalm 46 is taped to the top of the cart.  It reads: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever present help.”
That’s the scene at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, where its leaders say their aim is to bring the children of Garfield Park together and keep them safe. The center is located at 3330 W. Carroll Ave. in Chicago.
On a recent afternoon, Children ran around the room shouting, laughing and socializing with their peers and with their youth leaders.  They formed a circle in the center of the room and started to chant Breakthrough’s creed.
“Today I will do my best to be my best…I will admit mistakes. I will create peace in all I do. We will love one another because God loves us.”
Marcie Curry, director of youth and family services at Breakthrough Urban Ministries, has a background in education. She began her career teaching high school English in Ohio. So when she gained her leadership position at Breakthrough in 2001, she initially felt overwhelmed. 
Curry helped to launch the youth and family programs at Breakthrough with founder Arloa Sutter about 10 years ago.  
Breakthrough’s youth programs seek to serve people who live in the 32-square blocks surrounding East Garfield Park on the city’s West Side. It is a neighborhood that many here say has been torn apart by the Black Souls and other violent street gangs.  Their impact is far reaching.
For here, Curry and others say, children are corrupted by the gangs, often misled and manipulated. It is not uncommon for young people to be attacked in front of their homes, at parks, in public places that are generally safe in more privileged neighborhoods. 
According to Curry, one of Breakthrough’s primary goals is to unite the community.  She said a lot of residents feel isolated from resources as well as other people. Some are forced to seek the safety of their homes to avoid the violence in their neighborhood. 
During a typical afternoon at Breakthrough’s afterschool program, youth leaders guide the children to separate tables and rooms, where they break out into reading sessions.  Others children go to the computer lab upstairs to use the reading software and prepare for examinations.  Some students have to leave early and put on their jackets but continue to play.
Upstairs, past the computer lab is an open room with long tables set up for testing.   Some older students, mostly from middle school, work diligently on homework and exams. 
Curry’s office is in the back of the room. It’s cream-colored. A finished wooden table has been freshly cleaned and a paper towel lays bunched up in the center.  Books are stacked neatly on shelves.  A poster with a red background bears photo cutouts of Breakthrough’s first graduating class. Curry said most of the original class has not yet found success.
“Almost every girl in the photo got pregnant. A lot of them went to their freshman year of college and couldn’t handle it,” Curry said. “A couple of the guys got locked up.”
But not every member of the first class was present for the photo collage. Curry spoke highly of a young woman whose name is London Johnson.  She was a star member of her graduating class.  Johnson and Curry still communicate from time to time.
“She was this amazing little girl.  She started playing the trumpet.  She got into Vandercook School of Music,” Curry said.  London “is four years away from graduating from college.  She is a huge part of my life and a huge success.”
Curry said she thinks young boys have it much harder than the girls. 
“The boys struggle so much more because their very lives are in danger.  The choices that they make are so life and death.”
            The youth director pointed to one of the young men in the photo collage. 
She says the pictured young man was in the fourth grade when he started coming to Breakthrough and that he was a great student. Now, he is in the Black Souls, she says. He got shot at a couple weeks ago when he was patrolling his turf.  Another young man in that same class, she says, is in a similar situation.
“These men say, ‘I’ve rejected the message of Breakthrough when I was a kid, and now I’m realizing that I’ve gotten myself into this situation.’”
In fact, she says that one of the aforementioned young men met with her recently.   He told her, “’I’ve got a baby on the way and I really need to change my life.’”  Kiwanis is working on making the change back to a more positive lifestyle, Curry added
By providing continued support, youth ministers like Curry say they are able to make positive breakthroughs in the lives of young men like Kiwanis. 

Reading fundamental to building lifelong learners
Gynger Garcia, a reading specialist at Breakthrough, is enthusiastic about her job.  She teaches reading and grammar skills to the kids at Breakthrough.
      “One of our goals is that the children become lifelong readers—that it be something they enjoy doing, something they are passionate about,” Garcia said. “ That they become happy, confident readers.” Garcia said the program focuses on more than just education.
     “We want them to be pro-social people in their community, to be able to act appropriately and show different types of life skills, to be an honest person and show compassion,” Garcia said. She added, for example, “If your friend falls next to you, help them up.  Don’t laugh at them.”
The kids at Breakthrough are eager to share their experiences. Devin Hall, 12, loves to play basketball.  His favorite NBA teams are The Bulls, The Spurs and The Celtics.  Derrick Rose is his role model.
Hall attends Catalyst Charter School, Howland Campus.  He comes to the youth program a little bit later than the other kids because he has to commute via the CTA bus. 
           “I like coming here because, sometimes, I come home from school and I have nothing to do,” Hall said.  “I just sit there and watch TV.  But when I come to
Breakthrough, I’ve got lots of stuff to do.  I do my homework, I get on the computer.  We do activities.”
           Jaylah Smith, 6, comes to Breakthrough with her two older sisters. Garcia said that Jaylah, a short girl with ponytails, is relatively new to the program. And like many of the children here, she faces her own challenges.  
          “I’ve got three sisters.  One of them is dead.  She was fourteen,” Jaylah said in a somber tone. 
            Jaylah likes to play with some of the other children, especially with her best friend Maurice. On a recent afternoon, she talked about some of her favorite activities. She loves to sing.  Her favorite song to perform is “Never Say Never” by Justin Bieber. 
           Children like Hall and Smith are the life and soul of Breakthrough’s afterschool programs.  Not all of them make it, folks around here say.  It is a fact that has become all too clear to those working here to make a difference. 
           But with the continuing support, encouragement and education Breakthrough provides, Garcia and others here hope to leave the lives of these young men and women forever changed.
By Benjamin Scott

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